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A Calcutta Murderer Slinks From Depths of Depravity

October 09, 1989|MARK FINEMAN | Times Staff Writer

CALCUTTA, India — He strikes only when Calcutta sleeps.

His victims are street people, Calcutta's helpless beggars, lunatics and rickshaw pullers who share their muddy concrete beds with the city's rats, garbage and disease. And his is the perfect murder weapon in a crumbling city of broken streets--an anonymous, 50-pound concrete slab that is always taken from near his sleeping victims.

He has killed seven people in the past three months, crushing their skulls with a single blow. London had its Jack the Ripper; Boston, its infamous Strangler, and Los Angeles, its Hillside Strangler and terrifying Night Stalker. Now, Calcutta, a 300-year-old city long synonymous with the horrors of life and death, is being stalked and spooked by a serial murderer, barbaric even by local standards.

They call him, simply, the Stoneman.

"We are going back to the Stone Age," declared Rachhpal Singh, deputy commissioner of Calcutta's beleaguered police department. "Killing each other with stones shows what kind of progress we have made here."

Belatedly, public outcry for justice has grown in this city of 6 million people to the point where "Stoneman" has become as much a household name as "Gandhi."

Singh concedes that his police department is no closer to solving the "Stoneman Mystery," as the local press is calling it, than it was when the killer first struck June 4.

"We are nowhere on this case yet," he said. "We haven't a clue."

Indeed, the only physical evidence the Stoneman has left behind at each murder scene is the concrete slab he has used to crush his victims' skulls. And reliable police sources admitted that until the most recent killing, on a lonely street corner in downtown Calcutta, detectives had not even thought to keep the murder weapons.

What is more, the police do not even know the exact names of six of the seven victims, who, like most of the more than 50,000 homeless flooding Calcutta's streets from nearby states in recent years in search of work and a better life, are as anonymous as the city's cracked sidewalks and potholed streets.

"In the first three or four murders, we did not have an idea that it might be methodical or the work of a single person," Singh said. "And initially, yes, I do admit some lack of concern because these victims were, after all, just pavement dwellers."

To be fair, Calcutta's citizenry also was largely unconcerned when the spate of slayings began.

The Stoneman's first victim, after all, was a woman who had made her living by selling moonshine on the street. His second victim, a beggar who also called the sidewalk his home, was not killed until July 4, exactly one month after the first.

"Apart from the pavement dwellers themselves, no one was bothered much about it," said Sanjoy Basak, a local police reporter for the Calcutta newspaper, The Telegraph, who has covered the Stoneman murders since they began. "Pavement dwellers don't even have voting rights here, so nothing was really done."

In fact, it was not until 5 a.m. on Sept. 8, when the Stoneman claimed his seventh and most recent victim, who is described only as "male, approximately 35 years old, beggar-lunatic type" in the official police report, that officials were forced to take notice.

The beggar was crushed to death on Old Court House Street, just a block from police headquarters.

"We are under tremendous pressure right now from the public," Deputy Commissioner Singh said. "The Stoneman has become a household discussion. And Calcutta is a most peculiar place. It is like a small village. Anything happening here gets the attention of each and everyone simultaneously.

"And the people here are very intelligent. They go through the newspaper very seriously. Now, they want this case solved."

Facing such pressure, the police last month launched a massive, two-phase operation, first, to protect the sidewalk dwellers, and, second, to capture the Stoneman.

Police patrols have been stepped up throughout central Calcutta, where all the murders have taken place. Hundreds of suspects described by police as "lunatics" and "maniacs" have been swept up in a citywide dragnet. Undercover agents have even been posing as street people, pretending to sleep under blankets that hide their service revolvers.

Human-Rights Protests

The crackdown has brought loud protests from human-rights groups, which insist that the police are beating defenseless street people and torturing unlikely suspects who could not possibly be the Stoneman.

The dragnet did yield one possible suspect. Police picked up a "lunatic" named Mohammad Akram near a sidewalk dweller who claimed he had been attacked by the Stoneman. Later, though, the victim admitted that he never really saw anyone aim a stone at his head, and police found only a tiny cut on his ear that they concluded was a rat bite.

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